Film Review – Albert Nobbs
In Albert Nobbs (2011), Albert (Glenn Close), is a waiter in a hotel in 19th century Ireland, and is very good at his job. He is dedicated, polite, and knows his place. He is also secretly a woman and, if exposed, could ruin be ruined. When a visiting painter, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), ends up staying with Albert, she discovers her secret. Albert is horrified—until Hubert admits that she too is a woman pretending to be a man, and even has a wife and a home. Nobbs is flabbergasted that this could happen, and when Page insists that Albert can also have a life and a wife of her own, she turns her attention to a young maid at the hotel, Helen (Mia Wasikowska).
Close is the main draw to the film. She gives Albert a quiet depth as a socially awkward person. Outside of her job as a waiter, Albert is stunted in social development and ideas of sexuality. She is a dreamer who focuses on her idea of a better future, including owning her own shop, but is convinced she needs a wife to make the image complete. If she is truly interested in Helen as a real love partner, or as simply a companion, I don’t know. Why she feels she needs to have a “full” life is never made clear, and perhaps Nobbs herself does not know. Her history gives insight into how she came to her situation and why she became a man, and there is an inner sadness that comes through that speaks to why she is in many ways stunted socially, letting us feel for her while trying to understand her.
While Close gives Nobbs some intriguing quirks, the rest of the film really has nothing else to offer. Most of Nobbs’s time is spent courting Helen. This is an odd experience, due to Nobbs’s situation and issues dealing with gender rules. But beyond Hubert suggesting that Helen would make a good wife, Nobbs doesn’t show why she has clung so much to the idea, besides wanting someone, and settling on Helen. This would be fine, but the time they spend together is actually quite dull. Helen is obviously not interested, and Nobbs is so stuck in her dream world that it becomes tiresome and repetitive much too soon into the film.
The supporting cast have too little to do, so it is hard to get involved in the plot. While it makes sense that there should be people involved in Nobbs’s life, there is nothing about them that makes them interesting, though a good portion of the film is devoted to their side stories. Brendan Gleeson is wasted as a doctor pretending to flirt with the old wealthy hotel owner, while sleeping with the maid. The filmmakers are trying to make parallels about the idea of being true to yourself, that class shouldn’t matter. But it is underused for most of the film, so when it is brought up, it has little impact.
Then there is Joe (Aaron Johnson), a scoundrel who hooks up with Helen but is more interested in escaping his past (including an abusive father and a life of poverty) and moving to America. He wants to use Helen to get close to Nobbs and get some of Nobbs’s money he and Helen both escape—or so he says. While Joe is technically a rival for Helen’s affections, their arc becomes pretty predictable, with him using Helen. He is never really going to be there for her, and you can see everything that is coming for them.
Even Hubert, as another women pretending to be a man and the only person to truly know Albert, adds little information. Their relationship is not well developed beyond their shared situation. While the ideas of sexuality and relationships in this context and time period would be interesting to explore, they never spend any real time together, and when they do, besides quick origins of how they got into their situations, we learn very little about them. Albert keeps mentioning how she means to ask Hubert how she found a wife, but then never does, which becomes frustrating. There was real potential to explore relationships. Instead, the conversations become very average and normal. Which, considering the extraordinary circumstances, is a major disappointment.
The lack of momentum in the events in this film reduces characters to trappings around the set. Even Close, who moves above the material and gives us a great look at a damaged soul trying for what she thinks is happiness, can’t escape the situations controlling her character. These limitations stop progression and make for a two-hour-long forgettable experience.
Final Grade: C+